The glitzy shopping malls of London, Berlin and Shanghai, where mobile phones and other electronic gadgets are sold as must-have life-style choices, may seem a long way from the muddy jungles of Central Africa. The two are, however, inextricably linked by a dull, black mineral that is found in abundance in war-ravaged, lawless Eastern Congo: Coltan. Short for columbite-tantalite, coltan is a heat-resistant component used in the manufacture of devices as diverse as mobile phones, games consoles, computer chips and missiles.
Coltan's ubiquity in electronic devices has made it so indispensable to the electronics industry that Sony's launch of its PlayStation 2 in 2000 caused the unit price of coltan to skyrocket from US $ 49 to US $ 275 per pound within weeks. The global annual coltan supply is estimated to be worth as much as US $ 6 billion.
Around 70 – 80% of all known coltan supplies are thought to be hidden below Congo's verdant interior, a fact that has not escaped the warring factions in this most neglected part of the country which has been convulsed by almost perpetual fighting since the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda in 1994. Hutu rebels fleeing across the border at the time set off Africa's most bloody conflict to date which is estimated to have claimed the lives of almost five and a half million people.
The high prices paid for coltan have been cited as a potent force driving the seemingly endless conflict tearing Congo apart. Competing groups of rebels and militia, both from within Congo and from neighbouring countries, have been terrorising local populations for the past 15 years, often using rape as a weapon of war. Due to a complete breakdown of law and order, there is no shortage of recruits to do the rebels' dirty work in digging for coltan.
Children, deserters from the army, common criminals and other groups of desperate individuals flock to improvised mines to spend their days some 70 metres below ground, extracting the precious substance by hand. Accidents are commonplace and amateur miners are frequently buried alive.
Following a 2001 UN report looking into human rights abuses in Congo, international attention turned to coltan as yet another natural resource being exploited to finance wars. Previously, Africa's so-called "blood diamonds" had come under increased scrutiny, culminating in the Kimberley Process, a certification scheme intended to guarantee that diamonds come from non-conflict regions. Since the 2007 G8 summit, a similar process is now being developed to determine coltan's provenance.
Sven Torfinn travelled to Kivu Province with geologist Uwe Naeher from Germany's Federal Institute for Geology and Raw Materials (BGR) who is working on expanding a system of certification for Congo's coltan. With colleagues in Germany and using samples from the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Brussels, Naeher has developed a method of "fingerprinting" coltan to determine where and how it was mined. His treacherous task now is to collect samples from Eastern Congo's currently active mines to expand his research.
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